Why we gave away chumbys at FOO Camp

August 29, 2006

[NOTE: Many thanks to all of you who are blogging about us, commenting on our Forums and who are contacting us on our site. We’re getting lots of good wishes, lots of interest for different business aspects, and many of you are, thankfully, coming to us to help us make chumby better and to try to resolve problems you might be having with your prototypes. We’re all just sort of straggling back into San Diego from FOO Camp and are a bit overwhelmed. We’ll try to respond to every one of you as quickly as we can, but it may take a few days, so thanks for bearing with us!]

The whole Chumby team just got back from Tim O’Reilly’s FOO Camp in Sebastopol, CA. And, between all-nighters to get everything together leading up to FOO and the processing of a whole bunch of fantastic conversations with other FOO Campers over the past few days about what we’re doing, we’re kind of fried right now. At FOO Camp we introduced the prototype (!) version of a new wifi device that we’ve been working on, called the “chumby”. We obviously received a lot more attention on the blogs about this than, frankly, we expected or were prepared for, which is why our corporate server is toast right now (well, it’s up and down sporadically — we should be in much better shape in a day or two). So we’re drinking even more coffee and Red Bull and getting serious about finding a co-location provider and better supporting our new user-base of a couple hundred chumby users from FOO Camp and, apparently, quite a lot of people who have questions, comments, and suggestions for us. I’ll also try to set the record straight on a few things because blog speculation seems to be running a bit wild.

The chumby is, at best at this point, alpha-level hardware (i.e., still very much in development) and it is not currently for sale, though it hopefully will be by the second quarter of next year. Our whole reason for sharing the chumby at FOO Camp with a bunch of smart and curious people versus, say, launching it at CES with glitz and “booth babes,” is that, in addition to the fact that it’s still a totally incomplete prototype (!), we absolutely admit, loudly and clearly, that we’re still trying to figure all of this out, and we don’t have all the answers for what this product should be, who it should be for and how we can float a self-sustaining company around it. Upon further reflection, except for the admitting uncertainty loudly and clearly part, maybe we aren’t that different from a whole lot of product launches at CES. And, well, we unfortunately don’t know any booth babes.

It seemed to us when we started Chumby Industries that we could certainly try to develop a consumer electronics product the traditional way. We could hire an expensive brand-name industrial design firm, develop a list of “product use cases” from nationwide “focus groups,” construct multiple expensive design models, hold further focus groups to elicit feedback about the design models and use cases from members of our “targeted demographic” whom we’d ask to imagine themselves using such a product, take the most promising product candidate from this process, and then develop the product through a variety of semi-finished states, testing at each step, in order to arrive at a final product which we would then launch with enormous fanfare, and carefully timed for the holiday buying window, in a wonderfully-crafted marketing campaign (which itself required extensive testing and refinement) and supported by an awesome public relations blitz, all orchestrated months in advance.

Or we could do it a different way. We could discuss among ourselves the product we wanted to create and thought other people would probably want to buy (and double-check this by asking a few people to make sure that we were not dangerously abnormal), build the actual real thing quickly and cheaply and in such a way that we, and others, could pretty easily modify it, and then give it to some of our smartest friends to see how they liked it and what we might change about it. Seemed a lot cheaper, a lot faster, and the feedback a lot better because it’s a real product in real use in real lives. I guess this is the “hacker model” of product development. Build, run, fix, run, fix, works?, then play with till breaks, fix, etc.

We’ve seen a lot of products at the grand Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that are presumably developed the traditional way by big consumer electronics companies. Most of these products stink. Apparently a lot of other people think they stink too because many of these products (most of them?) are unsuccessful. These companies must lose a lot of money on these failed efforts.

We decided to develop the chumby the other way, the hacker way, because, a.) we’re hackers and b.) we can’t afford to lose a lot of money and have a stinker. We obviously still don’t know whether the chumby will be a success or not — again, we’re still developing it and no one has been asked to buy one. But we’re certain that we’d be slaughtered if we tried to take on the big consumer electronics companies by doing things their way. And I think we’re having more fun doing it our way.

FOO Camp was a great place for us to share our early thinking and chumby prototypes. Most FOO Campers believe the same things that we believe in, i.e., open is better than closed; “hackability” is better than a sound product warranty; passionate users are the best customers but “co-creators” (hackers, makers, crafters, artists) are the best of all; open, early and honest discourse is better than stealth; viral is better than orchestrated; etc. This canon is, by now, pretty well known. But FOO Campers are also known for brutal honesty. If they thought what we were doing was lame, we’d be sure to hear it. We’re happy with the reception we received. For sure the chumby is far from perfect and there are some things we’re definitely going to fix and add, but we seemed to get validation that we’re on the right track. This also seems to be reflected in most of the blog traffic we’ve been seeing.

We hope to have our site back up and running in a few days and with sufficient professional hosting that it stays up. Once that happens, those who wonder what the chumby is or what we’re trying to do can get a lot of answers straight from us and not from reports of FOO Camp or what someone may be speculating from a picture or an inaccurate blog post (though a grateful tip of the hat to several bloggers from FOO Camp who have done a pretty good job of describing the chumby — and arguably a better job in many respects than we even do ourselves on our own web site). We’ll try to keep our Forums up and monitored, at http://forum.chumby.com/ , so we can address any questions directly.

Like I said at the top, we’re pretty exhausted right now (yipes, 2AM as I write this), but soon I will try to address in some more detail what the chumby is. I will follow that with why the chumby is, i.e., who we think it’s for, why we think it’s different from, and possibly additive to (!), a cell phone, a portable game machine, a laptop, a PDA, an MP3 player, a clock radio, or anything else that someone might already have. I want to explain why the chumby is hackable and open (though not, strictly speaking, completely “open source” in the full meaning of that term) and what we hope to accomplish with this. I’ll also write about the people involved with Chumby Industries: I’m awed to be working with them. So as often as I can on this blog, yet while keeping Chumby Industries marching toward the chumby’s real launch, I will try to explain what we’re doing.

But let me be totally clear about one thing before closing this first official chumby blog post (and, I confess, my first personal blog post ever). We really do appreciate your comments and questions, whether here, on various blogs, or hopefully on our Forums. We’re currently a very small start-up company with only about 6 full-time people and several more part-timers, and we know for sure that we don’t have all the answers. Maybe you’ll help us figure this out.

We don’t want the chumby to be a product that ends up in your box of techno-crud. We are determined to make the chumby something that will be worth more to you than what you pay for it, and that will make your life a little better and more fun.


20 Responses to “Why we gave away chumbys at FOO Camp”

  1. Greg L. Says:

    Best of luck to you all … I am eager to see what comes of the Chumby!

  2. Rich L Says:

    Congratulations to the Chumby team–I true work of genius–you guys have rocked it big and important way….i want 100 of them to give to my friends and family

  3. Rich Gibson Says:

    Thank you for the Chumby…both that I have one, and that it exists. Hearing Tim remind me that platform beats application every time is refreshing.

  4. Thanks for the Chumby at FOO and for putting your blog on wordpress.com!

  5. The notion of continuous partial attention is excellent – I spend all my work day with one eye on the corner of the screen that pops up the email-arrived icon.

    Despite this, I think that once my attention is grabbed by something (e.g. an email coming in, a blog posting), I’ll want to respond to it. Also, the inherently two-way nature of the net seems too good to ignore.

    Can you (a) attach a keyboard using the USB port, or (b) include handwriting software for the touch screen ? I haven’t seen that Chumbies do bluetooth, so I’m guessing that BT peripherals can’t be used ?

    Finally, my assumption is that you’d really like one of these in each room, especially since they are plug-powered. But you hardly want a cpu in each room, or a storage device/hard disk ? So what about some sort of satellite baby chumby, that mirrors what’s on teh screen of the boss chumby in the kitchen, but which I can see in the living room ?

    best of luck from sunny Dublin, Ireland


  6. Nigel Varcoe Says:

    You guys are brilliant!

    I love the design & build approach that you have taken to this product! I am completely taken with the product itself, and with the community working on the product with you, I am sure that Chumby will take off!

    So many markets for this product!

    Good luck – although it seems that you are making your own luck!


  7. Ron Says:

    Fascinating device, esp being open source, even with a hardware design. I can think of tons of possibilities, way beyond the consumer arena. Talk about a cool unit for remote SCADA monitoring, or even as a patient monitor.

  8. […] to feedback, and even more open January 8th, 2007 When we distributed chumby prototypes at FOO Camp, we asked recipients to give us feedback — on everything. Including on our possibly novel […]

  9. […] when we launch them this Summer, will be quite a bit better and in some ways different, from the alpha-level prototypes that we have distributed and that you see on our Web site and in some owners’ blog […]

  10. […] June 24th, 2007 About 10 months ago at Tim O’Reilly’s “FOO Camp,” we gave away a bunch of prototypes of a new device we were working on, called “the chumby.” We were […]

  11. […] to be in the hands of people other than developers or ourselves (and a big improvement over our alpha chumbys).  We want to make sure that the end-to-end Chumby experience is high-quality, easy, and hopefully […]

  12. Nathan Says:

    I can’t wait for the Chumby to come out.I’m just sooooo eager!

  13. […] been very intrigued by the Chumby since it was first announced/privately released at FOO Camp back in 2006. I signed up then to be notified when it would be available to the general public. Since then there […]

  14. […] always sort of seen Chumby Industries as a different kind of consumer electronics company, with a different kind of development model.  As great as we think this new model is — and hopefully a new, […]

  15. pRozaC Says:

    don’t care. drop the situation

  16. /zyloprim/ Says:

    Yeah, relax and love life

  17. […] public today February 25, 2008 Some of you have been following Chumby Industries from the beginning or perhaps you may have already bought a chumby during our Insiders Release program.  But for […]

  18. […] April 19, 2008 When we gave out our earliest chumby prototypes at FOO Camp a couple of years ago, we wanted to make a really nice […]

  19. […] Dog’s chumby May 22, 2008 When we first discussed Chumby at FOO Camp, someone who heard the idea thought it would be perfect entertainment for his parrot.  “I […]

  20. […] app developers.  This is an exciting milestone for us.  I guess we’re no longer an experiment […]

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